From Shakespeare to Verdi: OTSL Creates a Dark Masterpiece In ‘Macbeth’

By Raphael Maurice
In Culture

In Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ “Macbeth,” we find ourselves transported to Scotland, this time guided by Giuseppe Verdi’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Verdi composed his “Macbeth” in 1847, and conductor Stephen Lord sees to it that the audience is captivated by such a historically and musically rich opera. OTSL has a dark and frightening masterpiece on its hands, both visually and sonically striking.

Matthew Plenk as Macduff and Roland Wood as Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2016. Ken Howard © 2016.

Matthew Plenk as Macduff and Roland Wood as Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2016. Ken Howard © 2016.

Macbeth is played by the brilliant Roland Wood, a rich baritone whose stage performance leaves one in awe. His anguish is nearly palpable and his stage presence unforgettable. The soprano, Julie Makerov, plays Lady Macbeth perfectly. She drives and goads her husband to acts of shame and evil while committing several vile deeds herself. Banquo, played by Robert Pomakov, appears in horrid visions, and haunts Macbeth, who grows ever maddened as the opera unfolds. Pomakov is, at the risk of sounding repetitive, a wonderful singer and performer who graces the stage with his rich voice and arresting face. The entire cast—from Verdi’s coven of witches to an astonishing Macduff played by Matthew Plenk—sees to it that opera-goers will leave the theater entirely enthralled. And the choral arrangements were, for me, the greatest strength of this performance of “Macbeth.” To hear this cast singing ensemble is an utter hair-raising experience and a delight for anyone with a set of ears.

OTSL’s “Macbeth” brought me back not only to recordings of Verdi’s work, but back to the Bard as well. And it’s a great testimony when such a strange and even violent work draws us into world upon world of literature and music. I pored over a digital folio of Shakespeare’s play soon after seeing OTSL’s rendering of this particular piece. At the risk of sounding deliberately contrarian, I preferred Verdi sung in English over the recordings I had at hand. There’s something particularly exciting about hearing the language of Shakespeare, so to speak, set to an equally beautiful and eerie background that, in the end, forces one to reevaluate and appreciate original texts and songs. From the opera’s opening scenes of the witches to its final scenes, one feels that OTSL has managed to make art not only imitate life but ultimately surpass it through gorgeous choruses and brilliant performances.

“Macbeth” is a very risky and bold choice for an opera company to commit to and perform. Rather than mere plot-conveyance through singing, the voices on stage weave in and out and come together for what is, so far, the best opera I’ve seen in some time. OTSL finally decided on Verdi’s work, and made a triumph of it.

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